Nov 262007

At the Cross-Media Storytelling conference a few days ago I witnessed a strange event with one of the categories of speakers. There were three groups of speakers, forward thinking practitioners, catch-up heritage media representatives and theoretical, reflective academics. The last group had one or two useful observations wrapped up in PhD-like presentations but the two hundred strong continental European audience requested a little less complex rhetoric – I have talked about this problem before and upset a few in the process. But, that was not the strange element, it was that each academic, and I forcibly recall four in particular, were keen on de-constructing and putting forward the view that participation in and around web 2.0 is a myth. This ‘opinion’ would have been fine as a short two minute statement, but being academia they spent hours analysing it from many angles, backed each other up and of course gave many citations from esteemed writers and colleagues.

Now. Is it currently fashionable in academia to take the opposing view to popular media, industry? Probably, it gets you noticed. Is it common for several similar ‘theories’ to pop-up in one conference, a sort of academic zeitgeist? Most importantly is there any truth in what was being said? I don’t have time to write a long article on this (I am travelling – hence some probable typos and bad grammar) but I threw together a little diagram to support MY simple viewpoint. This diagram grew out my frustration of this one dimensional view (that only those who post/upload content are valued participators) and also from a live, real time, question I asked the last speaker who had put the theory forward for a fourth time. So I tried to get him to clarify what he meant, I paraphrase the question…
Gary: “Am I participating in this conference by asking this question”,
Speaker: “Yes of course”
Gary: “Then why are those who comment, rate, share, recommend, mash-up not considered participants in online social networks?”
The speaker then went onto to say academics have to draw a line in the sand between involvement those who may change the title of a podcast they downloaded for example and those who submit truly original content. Afterwards I said why do you have to draw a line when we are talking about ‘degrees’ of participation? He said academics like defined lines and specificity to be able to hang theories on – yet none showed any kind of digram or quantification of those lines. So here is my ‘line’ in the sand stating that participation in society, politics, online social networks etc: is not either on or off it is a continuum of degrees of influence. It is an analog and not a digital 0 or 1 as the academics represented seem to propose.

Myth of Non-Participation

All the speakers on the other side of the participation fence (I was one amongst the web 3.0, cross-reality stuff, putting forward simple concepts of co-creative communities and participation) talked about over mediation, moderation and artificial constructs that gave the ‘users’ (yuck word) a perception of participation in which there was none. My diagram above takes a different view. Anyone and everyone can have significant influence in the social network. Whether you simply share a video (The Sharers) with a friend or create one from scratch (The Creators), makes a statement and you are influencing. You can also have significantly more influence by commenting (The Critics) than by creating sometimes. You make a video that has ambiguous socio-political stance and the first comment may actually draw attention to what it is actually saying. I know many of ‘The Critics’ who fall into this. The other thing I was trying to represent on the diagram was scale, numbers and level. So we obviously have more of ‘The Consumers’ (passive watchers/readers) than say ‘The Editors’ – those who will take content and ‘modify it’ before presenting it. Also the potential ‘level’ of influence of each group is indicated in the right triangle, and one would imagine a focused blog post or moving YouTube video would have more influence – but as I said before if enough people rate it highly the actual influence is generated by the community, not by the original piece.

A few of the academic presenters talked about the environment the perceived participation exists in. That something like a TV show that utilises video stories from its community is filtering and doesn’t really allow them to participate – but who said Broadcast TV is about participation in the first place – especially the example from 1993 given! Another one said that a social network run by a commercial company is controlling and is naturally inhibits due to complex, proprietary interfaces the natural course of participation. My simple answer is, if any ‘environment’ allows the community to communicate with each other freely and have at least some degree of co-creation then it is totally valid. Open source is one end of this spectrum, but even then open source is still a ‘tool’ created by a small group of people for much larger members of the community that use it. One thing I referred to in my talk relevant to perception of involvement is something I call ‘pushed interactivity’. This to me is the real problem with so-called interactive services, point and click, pots of content. I have many tens of posts on this topic in the archive on this blog (which is founded on personalization of course) and its relevance here is the word ‘resonance’. To me participation is about resonance, what you do changes in whatever way the environment or system you are participating in. Period. When you perform any action in society (online or real world) you are participating in it.

My blog time is up. Duty calls and I have real time, real life conversation interrupting. You can participate in this particular discussion by being The Critic (comment), The Sharer (forward it to your peers), The Editor (copy paste bits, nick the diagram, write a nice soundtrack to it and re-present it to the world) or become The Creator (by writing an original piece on this topic, vs a fashionable one). An interesting question – is this post a comment? An original creation? Sharing? An edit? Whatever it is I believe it is participation and have some small influence.

Posted by Gary Hayes © 2007